Q&A: Sting sails ‘The Last Ship’ musical into National Theatre

October 22, 2019

November 29, 2021 | (Jason Fraley)

Throughout his illustrious career, Sting has won a whopping 17 Grammy Awards, including Song of the Year for “Every Breath You Take.” However, his talents transcend from the recording studio, to the stage and onto the silver screen.

Starting this week, tickets are available for Sting’s original musical, “The Last Ship,” shown at the National Theatre in D.C. The musical will star the Grammy-winning singer, and run from March 27 through April 5.

“It’s nice to be back in D.C.,” Sting told WTOP. “I was actually at the National Theatre in ’88 in ‘The Three Penny Opera’ playing Mack the Knife, so it’s been quite the pilgrimage. I had a lovely time here. We were here — for I think — two weeks. I remember George Pisegna coming to see the show and he remembered it when I met him years later. Very fond memories of being here in this town.”

After premiering in Chicago in 2014, the show hit Broadway a year later. Once on Broadway, the show earned two Tony nominations. One for Best Original Score, and another for Best Orchestrations.

“It’s a story about what happens when industry is taken away,” Sting said. “It’s a very personal story to me. It’s about my hometown. I watched this happen. There but for fortune I would have worked in that shipyard. I became a singer instead, and I’m very happy to do that, but it’s a very emotional story to me.”

Set in the 1980s, the story follows the collapse of the shipbuilding industry in Wallsend, Tyne and Wear, England. Foreman Jackie White (Sting) grapples with the closing of the Swan Hunter shipyard, while sailor Gideon Fletcher returns home after 17 years at sea to find both his family and his town in disarray.

“Jackie White has worked in the shipyard since he was 14,” Sting said. “Their identity as a community is completely wound up with what they do. Then economic theories come in, the bottom line is more important; we have to close the shipyard and throw the entire community on the scrap heap. That’s a very abstract, mathematical thing where the value of community is excised from the equation. My feeling is that community should be put back into the equation.”

How much of the story is autobiographical?

“I’m ideally placed to tell this story because I was born and raised in that community — and then I left,” Sting said. “When you’re exiled, you have an objectivity that you wouldn’t have if you were still there. … My intention was to honor the town that I came from, honor the people I was brought up with, and also bring a message to the world that I think is necessary. We’re in trouble because we’ve forgotten the value of community.”

To write the stage book, Sting turned to writers John Logan and Brian Yorkey.

“I had the arc of the story that the shipyard would close and the men would actually occupy the shipyard themselves and build their own ship, so this was my own idea,” Sting said. “Then I brought in two professional writers to make it work well. On top of that, the current director (Lorne Campbell) wrote the new draft. … Theater is a very collaborative enterprise. I’ve had a lot of expert help. I’m very proud of this piece. It’s been evolving for seven years and continues to evolve.”

How exactly has it evolved since its Broadway version?

“We played in Toronto at the beginning of the year and the Broadway cast watched from the balcony,” Sting said. “Their eyes were wide because there was so much that was different; they were freaking out! We excised a couple characters [who] became composites of other characters. A character that was a boy is now a girl. There are some radical differences and it’s much more political now. It’s about social issues and we’re very up front about what that is.”

In addition to original compositions, the songbook includes hits off the singer’s Grammy-winning album, “Soul Cages” (1991), such as “Island of Souls.”

“It was about the death of my father, but also the death of the shipyard,” Sting said. “I always thought there was something theatrical about it, perhaps one day as a dream of making it into a show. It tells the story of someone like me who leaves the town, doesn’t want to work in the shipyard and returns to face his responsibilities to his family, community and himself. He finds redemption by returning home, which is somewhat what I did.”

The songbook also features “All This Time,” which was a radio hit.

“It’s about the town,” Sting said. “My town was quite historic. It was the end of the Roman wall called Wallsend. For Emperor Hadrian, that was the end of the world as far as he was concerned. Then the Vikings came. The Scottish and English were at war for 1,000 years, and my town was right at the center of all that. We built the largest ships in the world, right at the end of my street. The largest vessels ever constructed on planet earth were built in my town. So there’s a great deal of pride and history there, and ‘All This Time’ is about that continuity.”

Best of all is the song titled, “The Last Ship,” performed in a church.

“It begins in downtown Jerusalem about 2,000 years ago, then winds its way to my town in contemporary times,” Sting said. “I won’t give it away, but a very important person comes to our town because there’s a ship being launched. It used to happen a lot: when they launched a big ship. They would invite a dignitary, a member of the royal family and the queen. It was a big deal. But this song is about somebody much more important.”

Based on those clues, you can probably guess who Sting is referring to.

“There’s a lot of religious imagery in ‘The Last Ship,'” Sting said. “I was brought up in a very religious community and music became my spiritual path, but I never forgot the imagery and the stories of the Bible. There’s a lot of that in this play.”

Along the way, Lucy Hind updates the original choreography by Steven Hoggett.

“Steven did fantastic work, but the lady who did the choreography on this one did the Bob Dylan musical, ‘Girl from the North Country,'” Sting said. “It’s not ‘A Chorus Line.’ Obviously they’re shipyard workers, so they have to move in a way that represents the way that working people move. It’s not balletic, but nonetheless, it is choreography and it’s very expressive. It’s important we show working people doing things that seem natural, but nevertheless it’s dance.”

Visually, National Theatre will be transformed into a giant shipyard.

“It has an operatic scale,” Sting said. “The shipyard is a vast thing and we managed to reproduce it with a production company called 59 Productions, who were the people who put the Apollo 11 on the [Washington] Monument with projections. We create the dimension of a shipyard on stage, which is very exciting. The costumes are contemporary. I’m not dressed as a rock star at all. I’m dressed as the foreman of the shipyard, so it’s contemporary to the ’80s.”

What was the most surprising thing about working on a musical?

“Performing it, I’m sort of used to it because I’ve been in Broadway musicals before and I’ve acted in film,” Sting said. “I think the most surprising thing was in the creation of it, how collaborative it is, how difficult it is, how difficult it is to advance narrative through song. It’s certainly not easy, but it’s been the most enjoyable, the most challenging, the most difficult, the most exciting adventure of my creative life, so I’m very proud to be showing it right now.”

Despite the Tony nominations, the musical received a disappointingly short run on Broadway, but Sting remains inspired by positive feedback from a very influential figure in entertainment.

“When we had a very early workshop in New York City in 2014, Steven Spielberg came and said, ‘I love this thing. You have to take it to the people,'” Sting said. “So, that’s what we’re doing. We’re taking it around America, we’ve taken it around Britain, we did Canada earlier this year. I’m going to invite Steven back to see what he thinks.”

Hear our full conversation with Sting below:

November 29, 2021 | WTOP's Jason Fraley chats with Sting (Jason Fraley)

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

More from WTOP

Log in to your WTOP account for notifications and alerts customized for you.

Sign up